The Polo Club

How Ralph Lauren Shaped American Style


June 18, 2018 Style By Photo by Joe McKendry
From Issue Six of Gear Patrol Magazine.
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In 1967, a 28-year-old salesman from the Bronx decided he was going to make ties. Few decisions in the world of style have been quite so profound. A year later, working from a showroom in the Empire State Building, he released his first menswear line, landing on the name “Polo” — it just had the right ring to it. By 1969, he had secured his own in-store boutique in Bloomingdale’s — a first for the Manhattan department store — and later launched a line of women’s suits. But the Big One came in 1972 with the release of a short-sleeved collared shirt available in 24 colors, each one emblazoned with a polo player swinging a mallet.

This is the story of Ralph Lauren.

By the mid-’90s, Polo was expanding at an astonishing rate. Within a single year, Lauren started RRL, Polo Sport, the Polo Sport skincare line and the Ralph label, a feat facilitated by surging profits from lucrative licensing agreements. To this day, he is the only designer to win all of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s (CDFA) top awards: the Lifetime Achievement Award (1991); the Womenswear Designer of the Year Award (1995); the Menswear Designer of the Year Award (1996, 2007) and Retailer of the Year. He has also received the CFDA Humanitarian Leadership award (1997).

Naturally, the company’s powerhouse success caught the attention of the business world. In 1994, Goldman Sachs invested a minority stake and took a seat on the company’s board. Three years later, the Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation became a publicly traded entity, and it continued to climb through the first decade of the new millennium.

During this period of growth, Ralph Lauren and his older brother Jerry — Executive Vice President and Creative Director for Men’s Design — used the brand’s new resources to cultivate a team made up of the best thinkers in the industry. The combined wealth of knowledge and experience at Ralph Lauren drew fledging designers to its ranks to get a hands-on education. As such, a look back at Ralph Lauren alumni during the ’90s and early 2000s represents a Who’s Who of contemporary American menswear.

Over a half century since its inception, the brand remains a powerful force in the style world. Former employees, now with successful businesses of their own, maintain the standards and lessons they learned during their time there, helping to secure Lauren’s legacy in American style for the foreseeable future. Here are five you may know.

John Varvatos

The rock-and-roll designs of John Varvatos are aesthetically foreign to the world of Ralph Lauren. Varvatos launched his company in 2000, and a strong point of view and attention to detail won him that year’s Perry Ellis Award for Menswear from the CFDA. The following year, he won the CFDA’s Designer of the Year award and, in 2005, received the CFDA’s Menswear Designer of the Year award. Almost two decades later, his company is still going strong with more than 30 boutiques around the world. But before starting his brand, Varvatos worked for Ralph Lauren on two separate occasions, building a foundation that ultimately guided his own work in the early aughts.

“When I joined at the end of 1983, it was Polo University to me. We learned it all as we went,” he said. “We were the first people to do shop-in-shops. We put things in place like merchandise coordinators to make sure the stores always looked good. We learned that we needed to play to the strengths of the brand which were image, power, the aspirational values of it. I don’t think very many people before that would talk about any brands in the stores being aspirational.”

In 1990, Varvatos left Ralph Lauren for Calvin Klein. But four years later, he returned as the head of design for the men’s group. “It was like going home,” Varvatos said. “I had a great time at Calvin and great opportunities there. But I did miss the family part of Ralph Lauren. There is something about the culture that I loved.”

As the company grew out of its entrepreneurial phase, it brought in business-oriented personnel who focused on wholesale retail. But the shift did not deter the brand’s concentration on top-notch product. When newcomers like Abercrombie and Fitch, American Eagle and J.Crew capitalized on the aspects of prep and heritage popularized by Ralph Lauren, Lauren and Varvatos encouraged their team to continue raising the bar. “If you can maintain the creativeness that you started with and not sit back on your laurels when all of these other brands are coming at you, you can still lead,” he said. “Ralph surrounded himself with people who bought into the culture and loved the culture, and also he was able to continue to motivate them with his personality and vision.”

The day Ralph Lauren became a publicly traded company in 1997, Varvatos was part of the team that rang the bell on Wall Street. Despite his success with Lauren, he made the decision to leave the company and start his own brand. “I really had the best job in the industry,” Varvatos said. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy at Ralph Lauren. It was that I had this lightning bolt strike me one day, walking through Barneys on a Sunday and seeing so much sameness.” At the time, he noticed major brands like Prada, Helmut Lang and Jil Sander all offering a similar modern perspective, and he yearned to create a line that merged old and new.

When Varvatos shared the news of his decision, Ralph said, “Do you really think that if you leave here you absolutely have something new to say? Because if you don’t, do it all here.” Varvatos opted to strike out on his own, and within five months, launched a powerful first collection. Unlike the all-black nylon clothing in vogue at the time, his clothing bridged heritage clothing with an irreverent, almost unkempt aesthetic. From shearling coats to wide-leg cuffed trousers to jackets with raw edges to boots with hand stitching — this was a new take on American menswear. “I felt like if I was going to be successful, I had to do it on my own,” he said.

Much like early Polo, Varvatos’s company has grown from a team of a half-dozen people to a global brand, evolving through numerous trials including the changing retail space, the financial crisis and the ever-growing competition. Today, Varvatos’s primary focus is on preserving the DNA and culture he created. “There’s a lot of things that have changed out there, and that’s why daily you’ve got to plant your roots deeper than ever and keep watering those roots to say, ‘Okay, we know that we can’t stand still,'” Varvatos said. “Our brand will always be evolutionary. If we start to become revolutionary, we will lose the DNA that we started with.”

Sid Mashburn

Sid Mashburn had something that Ralph Lauren wanted. In 1985, he was working as the menswear designer for an up-and-coming J.Crew and oversaw every category except for sweaters and knits. The brand had amassed a loyal following with its range of unbranded, heritage-inspired garments. “The prices on the J.Crew products were much less expensive than they were at Polo, and also there was no logo,” Mashburn said. “At that time, as Anne, my wife, coined it, it was kind of ‘preppy hippy.’ It was a little Grateful Dead but a little Northeast Prep, too.” In 1991, he was offered a job at Polo Ralph Lauren. “It’s a little bit the equivalent of being called by George Steinbrenner,” he said.

Mashburn left J.Crew and became the Senior Design Director for all accessories at Polo Ralph Lauren. At the time, the brand wanted to create a younger version of Polo to recapture the J.Crew customer, so Mashburn’s point of view was indispensable. “At J.Crew there was a very small handful of us that drove design, but when I got to Polo, it was a machine,” he said. There was more freedom at J.Crew, which had a direct-to-consumer model at the time, and the transition to Ralph Lauren wasn’t easy. “They were very, very discerning and very, very particular about the details, the quality and what they were trying to imbue in the product, whereas at J.Crew we still were a little freewheeling because we didn’t have the experience that they had,” Mashburn said. Products went through many iterations where everything from the appearance of the leather to the look of yarn was closely examined. “J.Crew, to me, was kind of like college, and Polo was like getting your doctorate because Ralph and Jerry were very tough on making sure that things were a particular way.”

While Mashburn was at Ralph Lauren, the company established the vintage-inspired sub-brand RRL. Its ethos permeated the design team, which focused on developing products with built-in heritage and an authentic feeling. “One of the biggest things that I learned was that ‘No’ was never really an answer for design,” Mashburn said. “At that time, we were washing boots, we were washing belts, we were washing caps — things that people never dreamed of washing.” The process was very iterative, and ideas were built upon work from previous seasons. “As a creative person, that’s what you want. You want to see your creative ideas evolve and continue to move along,” he added.

Ralph had a strong vision for the brand and the foresight to avoid chasing trends. While Mashburn was at Polo, competitors like Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein and Hugo Boss were profiting from the sale of drapey black suits. When questioned about how his brand should react, Ralph calmly said, “Let them have their day. Ours will come back.” He kept an eye on the market, but trusted his own instincts. “Ralph could afford to be that visionary because he had [his brother] Jerry Lauren there with him,” Mashburn said. “And they’d already been testing products and looks and ideas their whole lives — they were just those guys consumed with this.” Ralph surrounded himself with a smart team of detail-oriented people to help vet ideas, facilitating the brand’s growth while maintaining a high level of quality with an aspirational tone.

After three years at the company, Mashburn left and took roles at Tommy Hilfiger and Lands’ End before starting his own brand in 2007. “I don’t think I realized while I was [at Ralph Lauren] how hard it is to do what they had done,” Mashburn said. “Because you’re seeing it as an outsider, you’re not seeing it as a founder, you’re not seeing it as an owner, you’re not seeing it as an operator, you’re not even seeing it as a business so much. You really don’t understand the sacrifices and the commitment and all the work that went into what they had done.” Mashburn combined the overarching principles he learned at Ralph Lauren with his own ideas for his eponymous brand headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. The range of aspirational suiting and shirting is reminiscent of Polo, but has a unique perspective shaped by Mashburn’s life. “I look at some of my designs sometimes and go, ‘Ah, too Polo.’ And not in a disrespectful way, but really more out of an awe and an ardor for what they do. Let them do what they do — have a different voice.”

Mashburn’s designs are accessible and celebrate the beautiful simplicity of quality menswear. Though only with Ralph Lauren for a few years, the company indelibly shaped his outlook. “Those kind of opportunities don’t avail themselves very often, so when they do you’ve got to make the most of them,” he said. “It’s something that I’m forever grateful for.”

Todd Snyder

Todd Snyder’s New York flagship store sits in a quiet storefront on the north end of Madison Square Park. The shop is full of tailored clothing and casual staples. Collaborations with numerous brands are interspersed with Snyder’s own designs. The store boasts an on-site tailor, barber and cafe, offering men a one-stop shopping experience rarely rivaled in contemporary menswear. “My father always said, ‘If you want to be the best, you’ve got to work for the best,'” Snyder said. “Ralph Lauren, to me, was the best and still is. It was my dream to work there.”

Growing up in the Midwest, Snyder worked in retail and sold Polo clothing. He realized if he was going to break into the fashion industry, he’d have to start at the bottom. While in college, Snyder spent some time in New York working for Ralph Lauren as an intern. “I called probably a dozen times to get past the receptionist to get to a design director, and finally got the right person on the phone and said, ‘I’m going to be in town and I’d love to show you my book.'” Snyder got the gig and worked tirelessly at the company, soaking up as much knowledge as possible while working late nights and weekends.

Things progressed at Ralph Lauren when a design director noticed Snyder wearing a shirt he had made for himself. “I used to make my own shirts on the weekends when I moved here to New York because I liked to play around with different fabrics. I would make my own patterns and I would try to sew my own shirts,” he said. “I remember sitting in a meeting and no one really knew who I was and I was wearing one of my shirts. The design director said to me, ‘Who makes that?’ and then I was like, ‘Well, I do.’ And she was like, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’ After that, she kept including me in meetings and asking me more questions because she liked my eye and the fact that I could cut and sew and make my own shirts.”

In 1992, Snyder graduated from Iowa State University and took a job at J.Crew where he worked for six years. In 1998, he went back to Ralph Lauren in a full-time capacity, lured by the opportunity to work under John Varvatos. “John is a legend and was a legend at that time as well, and I really wanted to work for him,” Snyder said. “So I was lucky enough to come back as Director of Outerwear. Outerwear is what I loved doing, and doing it at Ralph was just incredible.”

At Ralph Lauren, Snyder was impressed by the team’s meticulousness. “Being there, you realize how much they’re constantly refining and always making sure things are the best,” he said. “It’s really next level as far as their attention to detail and making sure things have a certain look — not too manufactured.” The environment was full of the industry’s brightest minds guided day-to-day by Ralph’s brother Jerry. “Jerry Lauren was very involved. He was kind of like the dad to everybody there,” Snyder said. He was a perfectionist, analyzing stitching and interior details of jackets to produce the best possible garment. Ralph, on the other hand, was the visionary.

“Ralph kind of looks at everything like a movie. I only got to be in a few meetings with him, but he had such a unique perspective,” Snyder said. “There was always this romance and mystique built up around it.” To illustrate his concepts to the team, he created rigged-up story rooms with old photographs, vintage jackets and other ephemera. “It’s such a cool way of working because you start from the most inspirational place,” Snyder said.

Utilizing old things for inspiration stuck with Snyder. “That’s where I really discovered vintage and looking at archives,” he said. After Varvatos left to start his own company, Snyder decided it was time to move on as well. “I left there feeling very confident — I had been to the mountain, saw what it could be and it changed the way I worked,” he said. “Everything from shopping vintage to the way I did concepts.”

Snyder ended up working for a former boss, Mickey Drexler, first as Director of Menswear at Gap and then as the Senior Vice President of menswear back at J.Crew, where Snyder introduced a range of collaborations with heritage brands, including the Minnesota bootmaker Red Wing Shoes. “Collaborations were really where I knew I could turn the corner on creative things that weren’t necessarily branded by the same company,” he said. While Ralph Lauren didn’t focus on co-branded products, Snyder saw an opportunity in the marketplace and continued to lean in after starting his own brand in 2011. “I like working with other brands and using their lens to tell my story. Not everybody knows who I am, but most people know Champion, Red Wing and Timex.”

In 2012, Snyder was named one of GQ’s Best New Menswear Designers and had been nominated three times for the CFDA/Swarovski Award for Menswear. His focus is simple: help guys dress better. Though decades have passed since Snyder worked for Ralph Lauren, reverberations can be seen in Snyder’s vintage-inspired outerwear, tasteful suiting and archival watches. “I was super-blessed,” he said. “One year working at Ralph Lauren is like dog years — it’s like five years anywhere else. I owe a lot of who I am as a designer to having that time there.”

Michael Bastian

Michael Bastian didn’t set out to be a menswear designer. He grew up in Upstate New York, went to school for business and got a job copywriting at Sotheby’s. “The truth is, I had been dying to work for Ralph Lauren ever since I moved to New York in the late eighties,” he said. “I applied a million times and kept getting rejected, but I had big love for that brand and wore it all the time and really identified with it.”

In 1997, there was an opening at Ralph Lauren in creative services overseeing the Home Floor in the Mansion, the brand’s flagship store on Seventy-Second Street in New York City, and Bastian leapt at the opportunity. “We were the ones who were really concerned with how the retail store looked, which is a little like working for Disneyland,” he said. “It always had to be perfect and you always had to be on.” A major part of Bastian’s job centered on reconfiguring of the home department twice a year. The whole floor would get ripped out and redesigned overnight. “I don’t know if magic like that still happens in retail on that scale and with that amount of money being thrown around,” he said. “It was perfect and inspiring and amazing. People lost their minds.”

Ralph Lauren’s dedication to perfection extended to all parts of his business, and employees were expected to adopt a similar mind-set. “There’s a work ethic that comes out of working at Ralph Lauren that people don’t credit enough,” Bastian said. “I remember lint-rolling wall-to-wall carpet because the vacuum wasn’t getting the lint up. You went to any extreme to make sure everything was perfect. People were climbing out on little ledges to make sure the windows were clean on the outside.”

From an aesthetic standpoint, working at Ralph Lauren refined Bastian’s eye for detail and created an expectation of how things should look. Miniscule details in the store contributed to the power of the Ralph Lauren brand, and like the brand’s designs, they were the product of countless iterations. “When it was great and people came in and your bosses were happy and Ralph came in and loved it, then that was the best thing in the world,” Bastian said. “You pushed yourself and you proved yourself. So that ability to just keep going, even when your first pass isn’t great, is something that comes out of that experience of working there.”

After three years at the company, Bastian took a job at luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman as Fashion Director for men’s and home. “It’s a weird jump, and I was very lucky to even get offered that job, because someone really took a risk on me,” he said. “But it was a life-changing job.” As it turns out, Robert Burke, a former Ralph Lauren employee, had just taken a job as Vice President Fashion Direct at Bergdorf Goodman. He knew Bastian and appreciated his style. For five years, Bastian traveled with buyers and established a point of view for the men’s store, while also working on Bergdorf Goodman’s private label, a collection of high-end menswear classics such as button-up shirts, slacks and knits.

In 2005, Bastian saw an opportunity to offer a new take on classic menswear and partnered with Italian luxury designer Brunello Cucinelli to start a new brand. “I thought there was a real need for an American version of his point of view where you mix tailoring and sportswear,” Bastian said. Around that time, American menswear experienced a revival bolstered by the #menswear movement, streetwear and bloggers. “It was a perfect menswear storm at that moment, and I just rode it.”
Over the last decade, Bastian’s business has changed. He operated independently from 2011 to 2016 and designed popular collaborations with the Swedish brand Gant and the Japanese brand Uniqlo. In 2016, he got a new business partner and created a more affordable secondary line called Michael Bastian Gray Label. “That has all the potential in the world, and could open up into many interesting branches,” he said. “Women’s could come back in that brand, home, eyewear again.”

In recent years, when Bastian has been asked to talk to fashion students, he feels an noticeable incongruity due to the fact that he bypassed the traditional steps of schooling and interning. “None of the last how many years of my life made sense, if you look at them on paper,” he said. “I don’t remember ever even having a résumé. I went from one [job], to the next one, to the next one, to the next one, and then got here and achieved something here, but that doesn’t mean there’s not something else that could come out of the blue and be very interesting.” But for now, Bastian is excited for what the future will bring, and his overarching goal is uncomplicated. “At the end of the day, I just want to make something that guys want to wear. It’s that simple.”

Mike Faherty

The stock market was soaring in 2005 when Mike Faherty joined Ralph Lauren. “Anything was possible, which meant that as a young designer, you had fabric mills that were actively asking to just do shit for you,” Faherty said. “It was like a field day in terms of pattern and color.” He got an intimate education in the science of creating fabric, where raw materials, yarn size and construction are what set you apart from the competition. “It was thought less upon to pick any swatches off a mill card,” he said. “It had to be from scratch, and I took that with me.”

The Ralph Lauren Corporation had been publicly traded for the better part of a decade, but its founder worked hard to protect the culture he had created. “You still felt like you had this support system — as in Ralph — on your side,” Faherty said. “We were working for them. We weren’t working for a stock price. We were working for people we respected.” Much of the time, as fashion companies grow, decisions are dictated by merchants or production teams trying to get the best prices. This was not the case while Faherty worked at Ralph Lauren. “Because Ralph was still the boss, what the design team wanted is how we had to get it done.”

Over the years, the design team employed some of menswear’s brightest talents, but it was always helmed by Ralph’s brother. “Jerry Lauren was there every day in the trenches with us, he was like this other higher power,” said Faherty. “So you had these two higher powers of extremely capable men who have seen it all still calling the shots.” Jerry’s experience and work ethic not only ensured a high level of taste and quality, but it also motivated young designers like Faherty. “Jerry was there more than anyone,” he said. There was still a sense of camaraderie in the family-run business, and Jerry was just as involved as the newest hire. “We were in meetings designing the same line together — a twenty-nine year old and a seventy-five year old.”

Faherty left in 2012 and, with his twin brother who had experience in finance and business strategy, set out to create his own brand rooted in the East Coast beach lifestyle. It was essential for Faherty to craft his own fabrics, just as he had done at Ralph Lauren. “It’s always about making the best possible thing, and the consumer will understand that,” Faherty said. For many brands this would be impossible, as most suppliers prefer to work with big companies as opposed to small start-ups. “The experience at a place like Ralph gets you a direct line to the owners and operators of these factories. From the guys who make the buttons, to the guys who make the labels, to the guys who make the fabrics, to the guys who sew the garments,” he said. “When I was ready to start [Faherty], I had someone I trusted who I knew made killer shit who was willing to take a seventy-five-piece order in the beginning.”

Faherty’s namesake company produces a range of wardrobe essentials from button-up shirts to swim trunks. The colorways and textures of Faherty’s fabrics draw on what he learned studying vintage clothing at RRL. “Things were going to have that sun-kissed color — it’d still have the brights, but it wasn’t over the top,” he said. Shirts feel soft and worn-in, like a well-worn vintage garment, right off the shelf.

With six brick-and-mortar retail stores spanning from Boston to Malibu, Faherty is cautiously optimistic about the future. “This is one of those industries, and you don’t realize it until you’re in it, where overnight success isn’t real,” he said. “It takes a lot of time because we’re not playing a price-point game, and we’re not creating some alt-industry that’s never existed before. We’re going after something that’s solidified and we want to become the next big thing within it.” In a sense, Faherty is following in the footsteps of Ralph Lauren with his own small, family-run brand. He refuses to chase the latest trends, instead focusing on building a customer base that values quality materials and construction. “If you look back to some bygone eras of some of the bigger fashion houses, it really was an authentic long-term play,” he said. “It took them ten years to create any sort of mainstream appeal. With Faherty, it’s just a lot of staying on course and staying true to our vision. With time comes expansion. It’s all in an organic way.”

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